Lasagna in the oven, cheese on top starting to bubble. Perfect. Wine chilling, festive music filling the flat. Who said entertaining was stressful? This was easy. Good company, pleasant conversation, the TARDIS materializing in the other room.
Clara went numb at the sound. A wine glass dropped from her hands and shattered on the floor. Oh, no no no.
She dashed into her sitting room and stood frozen to the spot while greeting cards and festoons of garland swirled around her in the uprising air. As she watched in horror, the TARDIS pitched forward, sending the Doctor rolling into the room like a bowling ball. The doors shut behind him with a loud bang of finality and he ended sprawled in a heap at Clara’s feet, moaning softly.
“No,” she said. “No, you’re not supposed to be here. You said you were spending the holidays on Delphini Bamburgh with your best mate, the Crown Prince Theodoric.”
“Deposed,” he said, face contorted in pain.
“Not my problem,” she said. “I have people coming around in about twenty minutes, so back into your TARDIS you go.”
She nudged him with her foot and he moaned again.
“Come on, off you pop.”
“I’m injured,” he managed to gasp out.
“How did you--?” Clara took a closer look at him as he lay unmoving, his face pale, lips bloodless. “How did you manage to get injured at a holiday party?”
“Christmas crackers,” he said.
“You injured yourself with a Christmas cracker?” She buried her head in her hands. “I don’t want to know, but--”
“They were enormous, Clara,” he said, voice trembling. “Every cracker contained a weapon, save one. And the poor sod who ended up with the weaponless cracker…” He coughed and gave a grunt of pain, trying to brace his arm across his middle. “He was the prey for their afternoon hunt.”
She went to her knees beside him, fingers dusting over a patch of dried blood on his temple and a still-raw scrape across his cheekbone.
“Mace,” he said, as she gingerly touched the head wound. “Slingshot,” he continued, indicating a bruise along his collarbone. “And some type of shillelagh, I think.“
He pushed himself to a sitting position, wheezing with effort as he continued to speak.
“Fortunately for me, the weapons were all primitive. I managed to get out of it with a few abrasions and bruises, a dislocated shoulder and four broken ribs. It’s a miracle I didn’t end up as the entree at their holiday feast, really.”
Clara became aware of her mouth gaping open as he described his injuries in such a matter of fact way.
“But you did escape,” she said, not quite believing it. “How--?”
“It’s all a blur,” he said. “I remember being chained to a rock and someone saying something about dry-aging the meat and then I lost consciousness. I woke up in the TARDIS later, no sign of the castle or the moor nor any of the hunters.”
He sniffled, tried to raise his arms with no success, then muffled a loud, spluttering sneeze into his shoulder.
“Bless,” she said. “Where’s your hankie?”
He kept his head turned away. “I’ve no idea,” he said. “And since I can’t actually feel my hands at the moment, it wouldn’t be much use even if I could find it.”
He sniffled again and again, the sound penetrating every over-stimulated nerve in Clara’s body.
“Oh, for goodness sake.” She reached over and plucked a box of paper handkerchiefs from the side table and gathered a few in her hand. She touched him gently on the shoulder and held the tissues out toward him.
“I can’t believe I’m saying this,” she said. “But blow your nose.”
She kept her eyes averted as he did as he was told, studying the disaster that was once her nicely-decorated sitting room. Nothing to be done about it now.
“Finished?” she asked after a moment.
“I think so,” he said, giving a final miserable snuffle.
“Good,” she said. “Let’s just file that one away under life experiences I hope to never repeat.”
She stuffed the used tissues into a pocket of his jacket, then stood and extended a hand to him.
“And you can’t stay.”
He blinked up at her.
“Clara, I’m inured,” he said. “And I think I’m catching cold.” He sniffled again for emphasis.
“Oh, no, you don’t,” she said. “Get back in the TARDIS, she’ll take you somewhere nice.”
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I overrode the safeguards to take us there in the first place and then she had to swoop in and save my bacon. She’s cross with me.”
“And rightly so,” she said. “But my entire family is coming for Christmas dinner.”
“Is it Christmas already?”
“We’re celebrating a day early.”
“Wait, I thought you poisoned your family last year.” He closed his eyes, made an attempt at rubbing his eyes and ended up smacking himself in the face instead. “I’m sure you said something about poisoning.”
“I didn’t poison them,” she said, voice rising with indignation. “Not deliberately, at least. A touch of food poisoning, the turkey was a little undercooked.”
“And they’re returning willingly?”
“Yes, and in just a few minutes so if you could…” She motioned toward the TARDIS.
He shivered. “Why is it so cold in here?”
"There's a fire going," Clara said. "It isn't cold at all."
She jumped at a firm knock on her front door.
“There they are,” she said. “Come on, up you get.”
She helped him to his feet, steadied him and then pushed him in the direction of the TARDIS which immediately powered down, the interior lights dimming.
“I tried to tell you,” he said. “She won’t listen, she’s having a sulk.”
“Okay, okay.” She kept one hand on his elbow as he staggered toward her room. “Just...stay in the bedroom, okay? I don’t care what you do in there as long as you’re quiet. We’ll figure this out later.”
She closed the door firmly in his face, straightened her dress and pasted on a fake smile. She could do this.
“Dad!” she said, patting her father on the shoulder as he moved past her into the entry. “And Linda, you look lovely, come on in.”
Her grandmother beamed up at her, brandishing a large bottle decorated with a bow.
“Gran, it’s so good to see you,” she said.
“I need the ladies’,” Linda said, pulling off her coat.
“I’ll check the turkey,” her dad called over his shoulder. “Don’t want a repeat of last year, do we?”
“Be careful, dad,” she said. “I broke a glass in there. Haven’t cleaned it up yet. And it's not a turkey, I baked a lasagna.”
Clara stepped between her grandmother and her bedroom as she headed in that direction.
“Let me take your wrap, Gran,” she said. “You go get yourself a drink and I’ll just take these through.”
She gathered all the coats in her arms.
“Everyone make yourself at home,” she shouted over her shoulder.
“Clara,” her grandmother said, her eyes wide with concern. “Is everything okay, dear? You’re acting a bit twitchy.”
“Everything’s great!” she said, rubbing her upper eyelid with one finger. “Couldn’t be better! But I have a, erm...I have a builder in at the moment.”
Her dad peered out of the kitchen. “A builder? In the middle of dinner?”
“Yes, well, you know builders,” Clara said. “Have to work around their availability, right?” She gave a careless little laugh that bordered on the hysterical and ducked into her room.
The bedroom was dark, the heavy drapes drawn across the windows. The Doctor was all eyebrows and bleary eyes, huddled underneath an enormous pile of blankets and what looked like some of her clothing.
“Clara, is that you?” he said in a hoarse croak.
“Of course it’s me,” she said, dumping her armful on the rocking chair.
“You have coats,” he said. “Excellent. Bring them over.”
She stepped close to where he lay shivering.
“These are my guests’ coats,” she said. “Don’t touch them.”
“But I’m still so cold,” he said. “I can’t seem to get warm enough.”
She heard a sharp inhalation of breath, then another sneeze, muffled beneath several layers of bedclothes.
"I don't have time to deal with this right now."
Then she relented a little and smoothed the hair that was sticking out from under the duvet.
“Sounds like you are coming down with a cold," she said.
"Told you," he muttered.
"Well, have a kip if you can. Maybe you’ll feel better when you wake up.”
She opened the door just a crack and squeezed through, wary of any prying eyes.
“Take a look at this, Linda! Haven’t seen one of these since I was a lad.”
Clara’s stomach dropped as she heard her father’s voice ring out from the sitting room. She rushed in to find him tugging at the handle of the TARDIS.
“Dad,” she said, trying not to sound panicked. “What are you doing?”
“Just having a look. Door’s stuck, though,” he said. “Why do you have a police box in your sitting room?”
Clara gave a strained laugh and rubbed another twitch out of her eye.
“Having a costume do tomorrow,” she said. “It’s a prop.”
“Nicely done for a prop,” he said.
He stood on tiptoe to try to peer in through the upper windows.
“Dad, stop it. There’s nothing inside.”
She maneuvered herself between the TARDIS and her curious father.
“Just cheap plywood and some paint slapped on. Go open the wine, would you? And ask Linda to put the salad together. I’ll be there in a sec.”
Clara pressed her face to the side panel after her father left the room.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry. You’re not a cheap prop at all, you’re beautiful. Please don’t be angry.”
She took a deep breath and pushed herself away. A few more hours, that’s all. A nice meal, a little after-dinner conversation, an exchange of obligatory gifts and it would all be over.
“It’s very nice, Clara,” her grandmother said after they’d settled themselves at the table and she’d dished out what was left of her lasagna. “If you scrape off the top, it hardly tastes burnt at all.”
Clara drained her second glass of wine and pulled the bottle toward her.
“Left it under the broiler too long,” she mumbled as she poured. “I was a little distracted.”
“Could happen to anyone,” Linda said from across the table as she tore a roll in half. “The salad is wonderful, though. You know, I’ve been thinking of becoming a vegetarian. New Year’s resolution and all that.”
“Mmm.” Clara gave her a tight smile, only half listening, most of her attention focused on the scuffling noises coming from the vicinity of her bedroom.
“Do you hear something?” her father asked.
“It’s the builder,” she said. “He’s working on the...joists.”
Clara froze with her glass halfway to her mouth when the Doctor staggered from her bedroom. He seemed to be falling asleep on his feet, swaying slightly where he stood, arms tucked in as he shivered.
Linda and her father leaned their heads together to whisper. Her grandmother sat stoically, working away at her plate of burnt pasta with delicate stabs of her fork.
“Where are you going, Mister, uhm, Builder?” she asked, raising her voice. “Aren’t all the repairs in the bedroom?”
The Doctor pointed a shaking hand down the corridor then began making his way unsteadily toward the bathroom, supporting himself against the wall. She turned back to see her entire family staring at her.
“Mr. Builder?” her father asked.
“Plumbing.” Clara blurted. “Problem with the pipes under the sink, he’s going to take a look.”
Linda looked back toward the corridor.
“He’s dressed rather oddly for a builder, isn’t he?”
“Special protective gear.”
Her father snorted. “He’s wearing an untucked white button-up, a pair of tracksuit bottoms that are about six inches too short for him and fuzzy pink socks.”
“Yes, I know,” Clara said. “It’s the latest in antimicrobial protective gear, just as I said.”
He tossed his napkin to the table and pushed his chair back.
“Where are you going?”
“Going to give him a hand, know a thing or two about plumbing myself.”
“Dad, it’s fine,” Clara said. “He’s got it.”
She eyed up the distance between her father and the doorway. She could tackle him with a little headstart if he tried anything.
The bathroom door shut firmly, followed by the sounds of an immediate and prolonged bout of coughing. Clara’s grandmother replaced her fork at the side of her plate and sat with her hands folded, eyes cast down to the table.
A painful and protracted retching noise shook Clara’s father from his daze. He looked toward Linda and she stood to join him, knocking over her chair in her haste.
“Thank you, Clara,” she said. “We had such a nice evening, the meal was lovely, but we really must be going.”
Clara didn’t even try to argue, feeling only an overwhelming sense of relief.
I’ll bring your coats,” she said.
She tapped on the bathroom door in passing.
“You okay?” She cracked the door open, seeing only a fluff of grey hair somewhere near the floor. “Were you sick?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? How do you not know if you were sick or not?” She rubbed her eyes. Maybe this was all a dream. Maybe she’d wake up snuggled in her warm bed. “Never mind, everyone is leaving. I’ll be right back.”
The next few minutes were a blur of putting on coats, hurried exchanges of wrapped packages, empty promises to get together again soon, cheerful farewells and Clara helping a miserable Doctor back to bed. She sagged in relief as silence fell over her flat. There wasn’t one room that was untouched, with everything upended or scattered or broken, but she didn’t care. It was peaceful now and there was a leftover lasagna and a comfortable couch calling her name.
Clara jumped backwards as she entered the kitchen, startled at the unexpected sight of her grandmother at the counter, a lemon, a honey jar and a bottle of bourbon at her elbow.
“Gran, what are you doing?” she said, pressing a hand to her chest, trying to calm her heart. “I thought you left with dad and Linda.”
“They’re waiting for me downstairs,” her grandmother said. “Told them I forgot something and nipped in sharpish while you were in the other room.”
A spoon clanked against a mug.
“One of my famous hot toddies,” her grandmother said. “When you were a girl I’d always fix one for you when you were ill. Minus the whiskey, of course.”
“Nice of you, Gran,” Clara said. “But I’m not ill, I don’t--”
“Not for you,” her grandmother said, her eyes soft and understanding as she turned, cradling the mug between her hands. “I think your builder is a little under the weather, though.”
Clara wrapped her tiny little grandmother in a gentle hug.
“Thank you,” she said. “I’m sorry dinner was such a disaster.”
“Don’t be silly,” the older woman said. “Can’t wait to tell the girls all about it later.”
Clara leaned against the doorway of her bedroom. She couldn’t tell if he was asleep but suspected he was lying awake and feeling sorry for himself.
“Oi, you,” she said. “My gran took pity on you, made one of her amazing hot toddies. You have to come out here to get it, though.”
The pile of blankets shifted.
“No,” he said. “You’ll bundle me back in the TARDIS and send me away if I do.”
“I should, you know,” she said. “I should send you packing right now, except the TARDIS brought you here for a reason.”
She sat on the edge of the bed, eliciting a grunt of displeasure from him.
“Your injuries will heal in a few hours, as long as you’re in or near your TARDIS, so that isn’t why she brought you. But your other symptoms…”
“Man flu,” he said.
“Don’t think it’s that simple,” she said. “It’s actually more consistent with Northumbrian flu, which happens to be endemic to Delphi Bamburgh.”
He flipped the blanket down to give her an incredulous look.
“The TARDIS let me in after the family left, gave me access to her databanks,” Clara explained. “Peculiar thing about Northumbrian flu, it hits Gallifreyans particularly hard. Messes with your thermoregulation.”
As she spoke she was peeling away each cover one by one, until he lay exposed, arms wrapped tightly around himself, shuddering with chills.
“Th..this isn’t h..helping me warm up,” he said between chattering teeth.
She gently unfastened the buttons of his shirt and eased it off his shoulders.
“Unfortunately,” she said, ignoring his protests, “If you can’t thermoregulate you’re going to feel either miserably cold or much too warm unless you have skin-to-skin contact with a healthy individual who isn’t susceptible to the virus. I’m going to assume that’s me.”
She turned her back to him, reaching one arm behind her, fumbling for the zipper of her dress. “I can’t quite reach,” she said. “Can you get this for me?”
She felt his fingers trembling against her back and the zip sliding down smoothly. She stood and let her dress fall to the floor.
“Tracksuit bottoms off,” she said to him.
She stepped out of her shoes, rolled her stockings down, tossed them aside and then slid under the blankets, shivering. She patted the surface of the bed beside her. He lay uncomfortably, reluctant to move too near to her. Clara pulled the blanket up to cover them both.
“Come over here, will you?" she said softly. "You need to be close enough to put your arms around me. Skin to skin, remember?”
He trembled, holding himself stiffly, eyes half-closed in misery.
“I’m not trying to be cheeky, Doctor, you need this.”
He nodded and inched toward her slowly, wincing in pain with every movement. He placed one hand on her waist and Clara tried to wriggle a little closer.
“You’re injured,” she said. “I don’t want to hurt you, so pretend I’m a hot water bottle or something and cuddle up.”
She pressed herself carefully against him, making a tiny noise of surprise at how very cold his skin felt to the touch.
“Is this okay?”
“No,” he said, lips barely moving. “This isn’t right,You shouldn’t have to--”
“Doctor, you’re ill,” she said. “Let me help you.”
She tucked her head under his chin and pushed one of her legs between his.
He wrapped his arms around her and gave himself over, convulsing with shudders, teeth chattering, bed shaking with the violence of his chills. Clara nestled against him, trying to position herself so as much of their bodies as possible were touching. He curled himself around her so tightly that Clara was finding it hard to breathe, but she stroked her fingers lightly down his arm, making comforting noises, waiting it out.
Gradually his shivering abated and his tight grip on her eased. He relaxed, all of his energy seeming to leave him in a rush and gave a long, tremulous sigh. Clara pressed her head to his chest and listened as his pulse slowed, falling into sync, her single heartbeat filling the space between the double-time rhythm of his.
“Better now?” she asked after a moment.
“Warmer at least,” he said. “Still feel wretched.”
“Not much I can do about that,” she said. “Northumbrian Flu has to run its course. About a week or so. Shouldn’t be any worse than a garden-variety flu bug, though.”
“Easy for you to say.”
She rolled from him and sat up, burrowing through the piles of blankets and until she found her dressing gown. She pulled it on and settled herself against the headboard, tucking one leg underneath herself.
I’m sorry I ruined your dinner party,” he said into an uncomfortable silence.
“It was already ruined before you showed up,” she said. “I broke two wine glasses, burned the lasagna and drank a little too much.”
She covered a yawn with her hand and when she opened her watering eyes, he was standing unsteadily at the side of the bed, tracksuit bottoms on, doing up his shirt buttons crookedly.
“The TARDIS will let me in now,” he said, voice flat with fatigue. “I’ll leave you in peace.”
Clara crawled across the bed, pulled him down gently until he was sitting on the edge of the mattress. He wouldn’t meet her eyes as she tilted his chin up with two fingers.
“I’d rather you stayed here,” she said.
Oh no, she knew that look, when he went completely still and silent, his huge, sad eyes welling up.
“You don’t need to do this,” he said, gulping slightly. “I can take care of myself.”
“No you can’t,” she said. “Not this time.”
“No, Doctor, listen. What we just did, it’s like...it’s like when humans take paracetamol for a fever,” she said. “It’s very effective, doesn’t take long to work, but the relief is temporary. The symptoms will return eventually, so you’ll need to stay close. Unless you can think of someone else who cares enough about you to cuddle you while you recover.”
Her words prompted a small smile and he dashed at his eyes with the back of a hand and nodded.
“Then come with me,” she said. “You get bored when you have to stay in bed.”
She stood and took him by one hand, leading him toward the sitting room and steering him toward the couch.
“You’ve got a miserable week ahead of you,” she said. “Might as well get comfy.”
She was glad to be standing at a distance as he settled himself; she would have already taken an elbow to the eye and a knee to the head the way he was scrambling about. Clearly his injuries were beginning to heal nicely. She tucked a cushion under his head when he was still.
“There we go,” she said. “Now, important question, are you still feeling queasy?”
He yawned and shook his head.
“Good,” she said. “I’m going into the kitchen now and I’m going to ignore the mess, bin the lasagna and fix us some tea and toast. Then it’s just me, you, the Northumbrian flu and the telly. I’ll even let you choose what we watch, as long as it’s not another boring nature documentary.”
She took a few steps toward the kitchen, then turned back. “And you have to let me know if you start feeling too warm or if you’re having chills again, and we can--”
She stopped and looked closely at him. He lay quietly, eyes closed, mouth hanging open as he snored softly. The TARDIS added to the peaceful atmosphere, her engines idling quietly, dim interior lights casting a soft glow around the room.
“Happy Christmas,” she said. “And sleep well. The both of you. ”